Session #1 - A discussion about child sexual abuse
Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald AM reflects on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
CONTENT WARNING: This story contains mentions of domestic and family violence that some people may find distressing.
When the Australian Government announced it would establish a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse it expected it would run for a three-year term and that it would examine the cases of around 5,000 survivors of abuse. The Commission ended up running for five years with more than 17,000 people coming forward to tell their stories.
Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald personally interviewed around 1800 of them. At times, for him, the experience was confronting.
“The school that I went to was named, the school my two boys went to was named. The Parish I went to was named. An assistant priest who I thought was terrific was named and was a serial abuser. So, I have to say sitting there and listening to these stories – for me and for some of the other commissioners – was deeply personal. I don’t think there was anyone who worked for the Commission who wasn’t affected by the experience.”
Robert spoke openly about the severity of the impact sexual abuse had on those who came forward. He talked about how – with its promise to talk to ‘anybody, anywhere’ – the investigation led to many interviews being conducted in prisons, with people who were struggling with day-to-day life and with many who feared about how the impact of their experiences might affect them as parents, partners and productive members of the community.
“I was gobsmacked from day one about how the impacts played out in people’s lives. That was one of the big learnings that came out of the Royal Commission,” Robert recalled. “The impacts for people are variable and they are long-term. That’s why we’ve got to have a support system that travels with people throughout their life. It doesn’t mean they need support all their life, it does mean that a system needs to be in place so that when they do need it, it’s available. And that’s one of the recommendations that we’ve made to the government.”
During the discussion, Robert spoke about how, for many, the Commission offered individuals their first experience of disclosure. How the fear of not being believed by school teachers, church leaders, police and parents had prevented them from ever wanting to talk about what had happened to them as children.
He also spoke about how many of the organisations implicated in the stories didn’t know how to apologise. That some institutions founded on the virtues of justice, love and compassion simply didn’t adopt those principles in practice. And that often, survivors of abuse simply wanted recognition of the fact they’d been abused, they wanted recognition of the impact it had on their lives and they wanted acknowledgement of the truth.
5 minutes with Jane French
Jane French is the Executive Director of Child Wise at Save the Children, and worked closely with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Here, she provides some further insights into the discussion.
What do the recommendations from the Royal Commission mean for the children and youth sectors?
The Royal Commission recommendations emphasise that every organisation where children and young people spend time, no matter how big or small, need to be aware of and comply with their obligations to keep children in their care safe from harm. Robert Fitzgerald stresses the need for child safety to be integrated in organisations ‘from boardroom to basement’ where the commitment to keep children safe is felt across the entire organisation. The Royal Commission recommends a complete examination and review of organisational policies, procedures and culture as they relate to child safety and the rights of children to participate, provide feedback and have their best interests represented in decisions that affect their safety and wellbeing.
How do we apply the new child safety standards to our work?
Firstly, a clear position on the importance of child safety is vital and should be the life blood of any organisation where children and young people spend time. Appropriate vetting, training and supervision of staff and volunteers is vital, as is ensuring that they are clear about their role in working with children. Staff need to understand what child abuse is, how to identify and respond to signs, concerns, incidences or allegations of abuse, and minimize risks to children that may be both internal and external to the organisation. Importantly, organisations must establish ways to allow children to participate more strongly in how services are delivered, provide opportunities for children to voice their opinion and feel encouraged to speak up when they feel unsafe.
How can we make sure we are taking steps to keep children in institutions truly safe?
I understand the challenging position organisations find themselves in since the findings of the Royal Commission have come to light. It is a difficult and complex issue to tackle, and with child safety legislation changing rapidly, it can be overwhelming for organisations to step back from their day-to-day operations and examine their own systems, processes and culture and how they support or fail to support the safety of children in their care. To ensure child safety is implemented from ‘boardroom to basement’, Child Wise provides coaching of leadership teams to help them develop an organisational child safety mindset and transform the organisational culture.
How did your involvement with the Commission affect you personally and what did you take – from a professional standpoint – from the experience?
I am extremely grateful for the experience I had working with the Royal Commission. There were many times when I was personally impacted by stories of heinous abuse and these stories stay with me today. However, it was incredibly rewarding and empowering to see wave upon wave of people coming forward to participate in the private session process and to have their experiences heard, understood and validated, some of them speaking up and sharing their story for the first time. In many cases, this process lead to, or enhanced healing for survivors of childhood abuse. For me, it was a privilege to be a part of that process.